God’s new community: His Masterpiece

Ephesians 2:11-22

Cornerstones in ancient buildings were the primary load-bearing stones that determined the lines of the building (1 Kings 7:10; Isaiah 28:16;  Rom. 9:32-33; 10:11; 1 Peter 2:4-8).  Not only is the church built on Christ Jesus the cornerstone, the whole building exists in him as well. 

Both 2:21 and 2:22 begin and end with "in": In him the building is bound together and grows into a temple in the Lord; in him the Gentiles are built together with the Jews to be a dwelling of God in the Spirit.

The repetition with "in" underscores that all this union with God and other people takes place in Christ.

God’s people are God’s temple. Gentiles, the ones formerly kept out of the temple now are the temple. While 1 Corinthians 6:19 refers to the individual as the temple of God, usually (as here) the people are corporately God’s temple (1 Cor. 3:16- 17; 2 Cor. 6:16). The purpose of the physical temple in Jerusalem was to show that God had taken up residence with his people. That Jerusalem temple is replaced with Christ and his followers. "One greater than the temple is here" (Matt. 12:6; John 2:19- 22). 

So who is part of this Masterpiece?

1.  People who were once not part of it (v11).
Memory is a wonderful gift from God that enables life. We remember pain, enjoyment, people, information, and events in order to make appropriate choices for the present and future. Some memories we choose – others are burned into us by the sheer force of the event. Memories can be paths to success or scars that disable. Sometimes we choose to forget painful parts of life, but often only succeed in repressing the memory until a later, possibly more difficult, time. We also make choices in remembering as to how much attention will be given to particular painful or enjoyable events. Remembering is the way we name and process the past, the way we structure our minds to know how to live.

Ephesians 2:11 is unique in the New Testament. It is the only text that explicitly tells us to remember our former plight. How does this message fit with Philippians 3:13-14, which tells us to forget what is behind? Both texts have the same concern – a life shaped by Christ. In Ephesians, Paul not only wants people to remember their former plight, but also what they have become.

We need to remember sin, for part of sin’s delusion is that it keeps us unaware of sin. We need also to remember the biblical stories and the content of the faith. In the Lord’s Supper we remember Christ’s death and resurrection, and we remember the change worked within us. Remembering is a way to deal with our pride and self-sufficiency and also to keep connected to God.

2. People who were alienated (v11-12).
Note the description of sin as alienation, fracture, and purposelessness (2:11-12). From these problems come a host of other sins, such as envy, hatred, lying, conflict, abuse, murder, and war. Note too how the problem of alienation was rooted in religious privilege. Ancient Judaism saw circumcision as the primary symbol of obedience to the Torah, of belonging to God, and of purity.  Jewish practices grew out of the reality of God’s election and purposes for Israel. The privilege Israel enjoyed was real, the arrogance and disdain were a failure.

The church too enjoys privilege, but has handled it no better. Conflicts within denominations, across denominations, and between Christians and non-Christians are commonplace. Much of the world still stands where these Gentiles stood—apart from God, with no involvement in his purposes, and with no hope. When God is left out of the picture, life really is bleak and boring. People stand on the side-lines of life, trying to keep fit and to be entertained. Little reason exists to focus on anything other than self, but that leads to alienation and division and ultimately to despair. People need to hear God calling them into the game,- they need to hear God calling them to peace.

3. People who belong (v11-13)
We belong. Throughout life, most of us have some sense of not belonging, and we feel unaccepted and inferior. We need to belong, to have some sense of fit in the world, and from a sense of belonging comes the ability to relate and accomplish things.

God does not reverse the human plight, there is no hope. But the message of Ephesians is that God in his love did. In God’s love "he became what we are in order that we might become what he is."  In Christ God drew alongside, entered into the problem caused by evil, took responsibility for evil, and bore its pain and consequence in his own being. Christ came as the representative human being, standing for us all. He came as the promised bringer of peace.

Christ brought us home to God. We live in God’s house as members of his family, and at the same time we are a house in which God lives (2:19-22). We belong with God and are involved in what he is doing. The other people in the house are family with us. This home defines us. Christ has given us place in his world, and from that sense of belonging comes a growing ability to relate and accomplish the tasks to which we are called. This text asks that we remember where home is: We are at home with God.

The church is a family of faith which should feel like family. Family members care for each other, are committed to each other, confront each other, and sustain each other. A sense of family should shape our worship. No one should be allowed to feel like an outsider in the church, all people need to know they belong.

4. People without barriers (v14-18).
We create barriers between races, nations, religions, genders, social and economic classes, denominations, schools, communities, teams, and families. Differentiation is necessary for identity, but the human tendency to create barriers is a distortion and a sin. Distinction and uniqueness do not have to lead to division. The erection of barriers results from the ways we attribute value, that is, by devaluing those who are different.

Who cares about Israel?
This passage assumes the privilege of Israel and is one of the most important passages in the New Testament referring to Israel.

Can we just forget about Israel as an unimportant detail in the story?
Actually, the relation of Israel to the church is one of the most significant theological problems the early church faced, a problem that is treated to some degree in virtually every New Testament book.

Why did not more Jews believe in Jesus? Were God’s promises to Israel still valid and were Jews still elect?
Ephesians does not discuss unbelieving Jews (Rom 9-11).

Is the church now “Israel” or is it something separate from “Israel”?
Christians must care about Israel because God’s work did not suddenly begin with the baptism of Jesus. God’s purpose in Christ and his church started with creation, focused on Israel, cannot be separated from Israel, and is equipped with the Scriptures of Israel. The church cannot cut itself off from its Old Testament heritage and the movement of God’s purposes throughout history. Whereas Romans 11:17-24 says Gentile branches are grafted into Israel, this passage speaks of a new being, something that did not exist before, a "third race," as it were.

What continuity is there then between the old Israel and the new being in Christ? Was Israel removed and the church given its place? Did a remnant of Israel join Gentiles to create a new being, and if so, what about the other Jews? Does God have two groups of his people, both valid, but separate?

Ephesians does suggest something new created by Christ (v15b-16). Three facts are clear in the passage:

(1)          Israel is assumed to be in a privileged position.
(2)          Now Gentiles share in the privilege.
(3)          In Christ Jews and Gentiles are joined into one new being.

Beyond this, the text is silent, it does not address the issue of non-Christian Jews.

The new being that is created, however, is not the church, nor is it "a third race," even though this expression is both valuable and open to abuse. The new being is Jesus Christ himself, who as risen Lord incorporates Jews and Gentiles into himself.  If God does not show favouritism (Acts 10:34- 35; Rom. 2:11), if all are created in his image, if God’s purpose is unity, if we are to love even our enemies (Matt. 5:44), if Christ took the hostility into himself to destroy it, on what grounds can we justify keeping any barriers in place? Unity was already extended to Jew and Gentile, to slave and free, and to male and female (Gal. 3:28). None of our barriers has any basis (v17-18).

Ephesians 2:11-12 serves as a strong warning to Christians, for we are as vulnerable to the failures of the Jews as they were. Unfortunately, much name-calling takes place within the church. When we label someone pejoratively, we too are acting "in the flesh"—in a merely human way that does not involve God. We also have our religious badges that demean and exclude, just as circumcision did for the Jews. Our sense of privilege turns into a "holier than thou" attitude that makes healthy relations impossible. When we communicate division and disdain, are not our religious acts also "made from human hands"?

How can we keep privilege, obedience, and righteous action from bringing division, disdain, and name-calling? "Holier than thou" attitudes are almost impossible to stop and are often unperceived by the "holy." We cannot draw people to Christ while inadvertently belittling them. Privilege should lead to thanksgiving, not arrogance. Once again a sense of grace is the key.

5. We are (v19-22)
This passage confronts our individualism. We cannot separate our relationship with God from our relationships with other people. This is not about people going to heaven or about the church as a group of individuals gathered for mutual support; God’s masterpiece is for people to be joined to each other in Christ and given access to God in the present.

Even when we know better, we tend to think of the church as either a physical structure or a set of programmes and activities. In the New Testament the word ekklesia is used of a non-Christian "assembly,"  and Paul may have intended no more than "assembly" or "gathering" when he applied the word to Christians. The people are the stones that make up this building in which God dwells. The church is the people found in Christ.